One of our favorite bloggers, James Engman, had the chance to sit down with the up-and-coming eclectic musical group The alt Default. While the members of the group – Nathaniel Wolkstein, David Connor, and Hannah Nicholas – are all classically trained fellows at the New World Symphony, each shared their wide-ranging and idiosyncratic musical interests and their "Never say no" approach to gigging. It makes us wonder: Is this the new model for young, classically trained musicians who face uncertain futures in the classical world – don't give up, just expand?
James: Hannah, I haven’t heard from you in a little bit. [You being] a violist, I know it’s sometimes like being the odd instrument out. What’s your experience in what people often consider two very different scenes – orchestral versus alternative? What do you encounter, and what is your identity in each?
Hannah: That’s a good question. When I think about playing, whether it’s orchestra, or chamber music, or even in The alt Default, I don’t really think about it that differently. I just think about what kind of sound I want for what I’m doing right now. It’s always just about the music. As long as I’ve been playing viola, I’ve been playing different kinds of music. I’m classically trained, but I’ve always kind of emphasized contemporary music – probably because viola has a little more limited repertoire, but there’s a lot of great current repertoire for us, a lot of modern music. So I already had to experiment with different kinds of playing. Then for the past couple of years I’ve actually started studying Middle Eastern music a little bit. When I started doing that was when I realized, wow I can do this on my viola. And while the viola obviously isn’t a traditional Middle Eastern instrument, but I started to realize that there’s way more possibilities than I could have even imagined. So then, finally being in a band for the first time in my life (which is awesome) it’s just sort of the same thing where I just think about: what kind of sound can I bring to the table in this context? So it’s actually been a pretty natural transition.
James: That’s actually what I was personally hoping to hear. Violists are very… flexible, but I think people sometimes try to limit an instrument to what it’s known for. So it’s good to hear [your response]. In terms of future goals for the band and personal goals for each of you as musicians, how do you feel you will each move forward from this point?
Hannah: Well we were just kind of discussing this right before this interview, because we never really sat down and said, “Ok, what are our goals with the band?” because everything done has been on a project basis or a very experimental basis. I think one goal is definitely to have a full album.
Nathaniel: Yeah, basically just writing as much as possible and just performing in as many different venues as we can, like different art galleries, Buskerfest, and just entering different radio contests and things. Just, I guess, kind of experiencing what it’s like to play in an alternative group as opposed to only what we would otherwise be doing with Classical music. It’s exciting and just different from what we’re doing on a daily basis. We all love playing in an orchestra, but it keeps things fresh. Like we can go from playing Sibelius [Symphony No.] 2 to polishing up a song I just wrote the week before. We get to go from something that was written one hundred to two hundred years ago to something that was just written a week ago.
Dave: On the other side, when we give a performance, I’ve just discovered with this band for the first time how strongly people react to a performance where the programming is very eclectic. We often as classical musicians are thinking of programming. Obviously all the symphony orchestra concerts or recitals that you see are very intentionally programmed, and there’s a lot of ways to approach that. But with this group it really blows that wide open, and people really love that. I mentioned that the other week Hannah and I played a duo set at an art gallery, and we went through the set together the night before, and… help me out…
Hannah: We played a tune by Miles Davis…
Dave: Well, say it in order though…
Hannah: Oh Yeah, we started with this song by a Czech woman who a friend of mine had discovered and sent me her album. She’s a Czech woman who basically performs modern folk music on violin and viola, and she sings as well. And I really fell in love with one of her songs, so I told Dave about it a little while ago, and so we finally got together a night before this performance, and I was like “Dave, I want to do this song tomorrow.” So we experimented and started with that. And then we played a Sephardic/Turkish song that we’ve done several times this year that I sing and Dave improvises on…
Dave: And then I did the Prelude from the [Bach] Second Cello Suite on bass, and I think everybody breathed a big sigh of relief. [laughter] And then we did a really strange arrangement of the song Nefertiti by Miles Davis, in which we kind of just turned it into a weird theme and variations for bass and viola. And then we ended with this song by The Tin Hat Trio called Helium which in the original recording has Tom Waites doing a super growly kind of vocal on, but Hannah sang that and we kind of a latin-samba infused finale/bass solo. So when you take an audience on that sort of journey, especially when there’s no program and everything’s announced from the stage, it really keeps people on the edge of their seat. Like when you go to a concert and you hear three pieces that are all from the same part of the world, and they’re all from the same time period, then current audiences don’t always know how to differentiate between the three pieces that they heard. Maybe they are different, but if they come out of the same sound world, or out of the same compositional philosophy, people don’t necessarily hear the difference. But if you play Bach, and then late Miles Davis, and the some weird thing from Turkey, and some of our original music—people like that. So for me, that’s kind of a goal, I think, would be to keep doing that. It was a pleasant surprise that I would like to keep doing.
James: So it definitely sounds like you widen the lens of music. In terms of coming up with the tracks for The alt Default, what kind of role does jamming [have] in this process, and how would you describe the creative process that led to Love loves to love Love, for example?
Nathaniel: Well I’d say in general, when I go for a walk for a bike ride, I’ll just start humming something. Then usually I’ll race back to my apartment and pick up a guitar or something, and start playing along with it and lay some rock tracks down in Logic or some recording program. Then usually after I’ve sat with it for a day, I’ll bring it to Dave and we’ll jam with it between the two of us. Then from there we’ll start to add drums and a lot of strings writing. Specifically with the Love loves to love Love video, I wrote that when I was in Madison, [Wisconsin,] my senior year. I was playing with this college band with a few of my roommates. I had this $15 ukulele, and I was just strumming along with it. One day a bunch of lyrics came to me, and I thought, “Wow! This could be the world’s cheesiest love song!” [laughter] So I went along with it, and I just kind of finished the song, and we recorded it in a very grungy college-band way. And then I brought it back to our friend Dave and our old melodica/horn player –
Dave: Alex Keenley.
Nathaniel: Yeah, and so I brought it back to them, and so we created this new version of that song with string bass, ukulele, me singing, and then Alex Keenley playing melodica, which was a fun addition to it. So we played with it for a year, and then left it. So a few more performance opportunities started coming up this year, and the Hannah came into the picture. And actually about a week before we recorded that NPR Tiny Desk Concert submission, Hannah and I thought it would be nice to turn that song into a duet. So originally that song was just me singing the whole time, but then we started going through the lyrics, and in a way it tells a story, so we thought it would be cute to sing it back and forth and to sing a lot of harmony.
Hannah: And just to describe what that experience was like, I came over to his single apartment, we sat on his floor, and he had his guitar out to strum the chords along. He was very patient, because sometimes we had to try three or four different harmonies before we knew, “ok, yes, this is the one”. So [the process] is really laid back, it’s really fun.
Dave: It’s actually surprising that you mention jamming. Um… we don’t jam that much. Like in my experience, in other bands that I play with there’s a lot more jamming, which is really great, and you can kind of let your subconscious do some of your composing for you. But we’re pretty conscientious about the things that we write, usually from the very beginning. Nathaniel will play for me what his idea is, I’ll sit down, I’ll figure out what the chords are, and come up with something that will add to it compositionally. Like with Love loves to love Love… wow that’s a mouthful.... [laughter] To get a good idea by listening to our recording on Soundcloud, that basically consists of Ukulele, bass, and melodica, and then Nathaniel overdubbed some violin parts over that, which he sort of adlibbed/composed into the microphone. So later on, when we decided to add the string quartet [for Buskerfest], we sat down, listened to what he had recorded, we started transcribing those violin melodies, and started expanding it for string quartet – composing some countermelodies and re-harmonizing it. So there’s a fair amount of classically inspired composition that goes into our work, as well as free form jamming.
Nathaniel: And my favorite part of the whole thing is that whenever I play something on guitar or ukulele, I have absolutely no idea what I’m playing, I just like the sound of it. Unfortunately I’m that guitar player that has no idea what chords he’s playing – like if you told me to play a G, or a D, I’d probably have to look it up online. But it’s kind of great because it doesn’t really limit me in a way that I’m thinking “okay, like that’s a 1-4-5 structure” or you know, your standard chord progression. Often the progressions are all over the place. I think they’re different enough that I don’t know what I’m writing. And so Dave comes in and kind of reigns it all in and tells me what is happening, and then from there we form… it’s just a very different writing process.
Dave: And some of the songs like Love loves to love Love, which was written on the ukulele, just the way the strings are tuned, certain major chords tend to come out naturally, but some of the other songs, the harmonies and chord progressions will be a little bit unorthodox. That’s fun for me as a bass player, to come in and think of how my mind make this voice leading work, or what I’m doing, how can I make this more cohesive? It’s kind of… I don’t want to say a challenge. It’s like an opportunity to use my background in a different way.